Astro330 CH Spring 2015

Astronomy 330 : Extraterrestrial Life

Instructor Information:

Instructor: Prof. Leslie Looney Email: lwl @
Office: 218 Astronomy Phone: 244-3615
Office Hours: by appointment, and email is good too.

Welcome to Extraterrestrial Life!

You have chosen a great time to take this course. The search for extraterrestrial life is making larger and larger strides. In the last 10 years, we have gone from knowledge of only 9 8 planets around only our Sun to over 1800 confirmed planets around many suns including the first detected Earth-sized planets (Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f) and the first detected planet in the habitable zone (Kepler-22b) and still 1000s of candidate (i.e. unconfirmed) planets.

In the near future, NASA will have missions that may find signs of life on Titan or under the oceans of Europa, evidence of life on Mars, or even imaging Earth-like planets around nearby stars. In this course, you will get an understanding of arguably the biggest astronomical question of all time: Are we alone? We will address this question with scientific methods, but also perhaps with some philosophy, science fiction, and fun thrown in too.

Course Goals:

My goals for a graduate of this course are that they will understand our current scientific view of life in the universe, conceptualize the factors involved with the ultimate question, propose what the future may hold for the field, make informed decisions about science policies, and hold any "discovery" of extraterrestrial life to a personal scientific standard of proof.

Nonetheless, this class is designed to be fun. It will endeavor to teach the student about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, but I will also combine various topics. This course will revolve around an equation called the "Drake Equation". The Drake Equation looks like an attempt to estimate how many intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations exist with whom we might be able to communicate in our Galaxy. However, the equation actually helps us understand our ignorance about the subject and illuminates the various topics and issues worth thinking about when we ask the question Is there life out there?, with an open mind. We may never know the answer in our lifetimes, but it is a serious scientific question.

After some introductory material to get us thinking about what we mean by life, we review some basic astronomy. After that, we cover topics in: planetary and solar system astronomy; biology and biochemistry; geology, paleontology, and evolution; some more detailed planetary astronomy; history and the future of mankind on Earth; and finally, interstellar communication and travel, including UFO's. In addition, the class presentations will allow us to adventure wherever the interests of the class take us. Take part in the journey, and let's enjoy the ride!

Credit Hours and Exclusions:

This course gives 3 hours credit.

Course Requirements:

Requirement Percentage of Grade
Class Participation (will drop some) 20%
Presentation Synopsis 5%
Homework Assignments 20%
Presentation 15%
Articles 15%
Final 25%
Total 100%


The following table shows the approximate grading scale in this course.

Grade Approximate Range
A 90-100%
B 80-89%
C 70-79%
D 60-69%
F <60%

Final course grades will follow these guidelines. Plusses and minuses will be used.

The ranges are approximate in that I may have to adjust them if, for example, I give an exam that is a little too hard. In any case, I will not increase the minimum cutoffs for each letter grade. In other words, you should expect that grade or higher.


Required Textbook: None, but I will make my lecture notes available.

Fun Reading: A Briefer History of Time: From the Big Bang to the Big Mac (1st edition), by Eric Schulman, Funny but more or less correct. This gives a nice jesting look at the contents of this class. Also, it is accessible for free from the web. Download it here..

Class Participation:

You are expected to attend lectures. I will cover material in class that will not always be in the text, and the lecture material will be included on the exam. In addition, one of the main points of this class is to develop an estimate of the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life in our Galaxy. This estimate is a fundamental aspect of the course making class participation required.

Class time is the most valuable for you if you come prepared and ready to actively engage the material. To encourage your engagement, the lectures and discussion sections will often be punctuated by opportunities for your feedback, in the form of asking questions, "voting" on the possible outcomes of observations or demonstrations, or brainstorming answers to open-ended questions. To reward your participation in these activities, you will occasionally be asked to write down and hand in your response in class.

These participation surveys are not "quizzes" in the usual sense, in that you are not required to get all answers right. Rather, to get full credit you simply must offer a scientifically reasonable response. The point of this is that the survey is always an opportunity to gain points as long as you are actively engaged, even if you are still a little confused. Indeed, the most difficult and potentially confusing subjects are precisely those that most require you participation!

Although the number of these is not set, often they come upon me in a whim, we will usually have at least one question per lecture of which about 5-10% of them are dropped.

Class Presentation:

Most students come to this class with a related topic that is of interest to them. The student is expected to build this interest into a research project. Logically, if one student is interested then other students will likely be interested in the topic as well. This forum provides the opportunity to investigate issues that may not be explored or not explored in depth during class. Examples of topics could include: Faces and Pyramids on Mars, Aliens in South Park: Satire or Silly, or Alien Abductions.

Students will create a presentation and a paper on their subject. In the first 2-3 weeks, every student will have to submit their chosen topic to me. Sometime during the semester everyone will give a 12-minute presentation with an additional 5 minutes allowed for questions from the audience. (Dates will be assigned and listed on the class schedule webpage.) Students may give these talks in any way that they chose-- powerpoint, overheads, slides, etc. The grade for the presentations will be determined from audience questionnaires that will assign 1-10 points on the below 5 aspects of the presentation.

1. How relevant is the general topic to the search for extraterrestrial life?

2. How interesting is the topic for the general class audience?

3. What is the extent of the speaker's knowledge of the topic?

4. What is the quality of the overall research?

5. Does the research use enough solid scientific basis?

Everyone must turn in a Presentation Synopsis that has 1-2 paragraphs describing the main idea behind the presentation, in particular addressing the above 5 points, and a list of 5 or more references for the presentation / research paper. This is necessary to help you avoid some of the more questionable sources. The date that this is due is listed on the class schedule webpage.

Class Articles:

Another requirement for this course is the creation of two new articles on a specific topic of interest. One article must be on a science topic and the other article must be on a pseudoscience topic, you can choose whether to do the science article first or second. The articles can be created with whatever software tool you are most comfortable using; however, you must upload the article as a PDF to moodle. Before writing your article, your article topic must be approved. The article topic selection is done by writing a post in the article topic selection forum. You must follow directions in posting your article topic (which are included at the top of the forum), and you must also make sure no one else has signed up for your particular article topic (first come, first served). Finally, you will be required to provide peer assessments for five articles: this means you will be randomly assigned five articles to read and grade.

Each article should be be at least 750 words in length and should include figures with captions as appropriate to emphasize important points (beyond these guidelines, the final article length is up to the student). All material should be properly cited and referenced. Articles are worth fifteen percent of your final grade. The breakdown for these points will be getting your topic approved on time, instructor grading, and peer grading. Creativity in your article is encouraged, and will be rewarded in the instructor grading (and likely the peer assessment).


There will be 10 homework assignments given throughout the course. These assignments will be simple answer, short essay, or multiple choice, and they are meant to sharpen your thinking on the material covered in lecture, and to help prepare you for discussions and the final exam.

Homework will be online through Moodle and is due nearly every Sunday evening at 11:59pm. Check the schedule for exact dates. No late homework will be accepted.

Final Exam:

There will be a comprehensive final exam for this course. The exam will be an essay base take-home exam. The date of the exam will be listed in the class schedule.

Academic Integrity and Collaborative Work:

Academic honesty is essential to this course and the University. Any instance of academic dishonesty (including but not limited to cheating, plagiarism, falsification of data, and alteration of grade) will be documented in the student's academic file. In addition, the particular exam, homework, or report will be given a zero.

Guidelines for collaborative work: Discussing course material with your classmates is in general a good idea, but each student is expected to do his or her own work. On homework, you may discuss the questions and issues behind them, but you are responsible for your own answers. In writing, you may discuss with classmates during the activity, but again, you are must give your own answers in your own words. Finally, on exams your work and your answers must of course be your own. For further info, see the Student Code, Part 4. Academic Integrity, at

Accessibility Statement:

To insure that disability-related concerns are properly addressed from the beginning, students with disabilities who require reasonable accommodations to participate in this class are asked to see the instructor as soon as possible.

Course Schedule:

Note that the lecture material may vary, especially as the presentations are yet to be decided. Remember to check the schedule at the main webpage for the most up to date schedule.

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Leslie Looney
Last modified: Tuesday, 20-Jan-2015 10:39:33 CST